Born in the city of Hyesan, in the northern part of North Korea, Yeonmi Park lived with her mother, older sister Eunmi and her father, a mid-level civil servant. Park grew up worshiping “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il. She thought he could read her mind. Her mother taught her to trust no-one. “Even the mice and birds have ears,” her mother said. Park says there was no such thing as free will or critical thinking in North Korea – the government decided everything for you. Long blackouts were common, and Park’s family would often go for stretches with little or no food.
When she was eight, Park’s father was jailed and tortured for trading on the black market; her family was branded criminal and forced to the margins of society. Faced with starvation and hardship, a decision was made to escape to China.
What followed was an unimaginable sequence of events: the terror of being caught and shot, but even worse, the horror of being sold to sex traffickers over the border. Park’s mother was raped in front of her and was sold to a couple as a “slave bride” for their son. Park was bought by the region’s chief slave broker. Eventually she and her mother connected with a Protestant mission that helped them escape to Mongolia, from where they journeyed to South Korea.
“If I knew that my life would be better – there [would have been] hope. But so many times I thought my life was hopeless. I didn’t know what I was fighting for. Many times I tried to give up,” Park says.
“But I found that the strongest force we have is the desire to live. We have strength that we don’t know [we have] when we’re faced with death.”
Park says the trauma was worth it just “to be free”. “To have freedom and rights and to live like a human being … I would do the exact same thing again.”
Leaving her mother in South Korea, Park has moved to New York to further her work on the humanitarian circuit, talking about the atrocities she experienced and the need to raise global awareness of human trafficking.
But putting the pieces of her life back together isn’t easy, particularly when it comes to trust. “I thought I embraced all my experiences and reconciled all my hatred. But it’s something I couldn’t reverse, the trust part. I lost faith in humanity. Through books and through meeting amazing people, I’m slowly regaining trust. I cry every day. I live through everything every day.”
Park’s goal is to one day go back to her homeland of North Korea. “Not now, but at a time when there is liberty and justice. I am very optimistic because the young people have more exposure to outside information and media. The young generation might change strongly.”
She is certainly doing her bit to be part of that change through her work.
“Our focus is always on the dictator and the corrupt regime, not on the people. It’s unacceptable that people are being sold for $65 – that was my mum’s price. So many people don’t get their freedom, and that’s what I want the world to know. It’s everybody’s obligation to speak up if we believe in justice and freedom. And that’s why I challenge all governments, from Britain and Australia and the US and Canada. If they believe in human rights, how can they be silent about this tyranny? What do we say when North Korea opens and the people ask, ‘what have you been doing while my daughter has been dying from starvation, when my uncle was executed?’ I hope, one day, we have an answer for these questions. I want to shine a light on this darkest corner of the world.”
Park admits she has chosen a hard path. “I sometimes feel afraid and I question myself. Is what I’m doing going to be possible? I’ll continue to speak up.”
Yeonmi Park’s book In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (Penguin, Fig Tree) is out now.